Lie. The three-letter word has for years been a four-letter word for any respectable media organization.
NPR, for example – whose funding Trump is attempting to cut – has a longstanding policy of never using the word “lie” or any variation thereof. As explained in a column by Elizabeth Jensen, NPR views the definition of a lie as a false statement made with intent to deceive.
Even as Donald Trump tweeted forth untruth after untruth, many media outlets shied from calling it a lie or
him a liar.
The best example came when Trump tweeted allegations that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped him. The media struggled to fit a synopsis of what just happened into a digestible headline. Most had some variation of “Trump tweets unfounded claim of wiretapping by Obama.” Unfounded. That’s the same word used by the media to describe the claims of ex-British spy Christopher Steele’s dossier outlining potential connections between Trump and Russia. By telling the American public that the wiretapping tweet is unfounded, the media isn’t wrong per se, but it is putting one highly researched and valid document on the same footing a less than 140-character statement the president heard and repeated from a now-dismissed and disgraced Fox News pundit.
Call it an apparent lie. Quote somebody who calls it a falsehood. Yes, investigations need to happen before the statement can officially be called a lie, but there has to be a better way to report Trump’s many untruths. If he tweets that the world is flat, the headline will most likely be “Trump says Earth is flat.” Instead it should be “Trump lies about Earth shape,” or at least “Trump falsely claims Earth is not a sphere.”
Why does word choice in the headline matter? Because about two-thirds of all articles shared on social media are not actually read by those who shared them, according to a study released last year. That means that if your article says, “Trump says that cigarettes are good for your health,’” two-thirds of people will believe that without reading the part of the article that says he is wrong. The American media is also currently trusted by 35 percent of Americans which is somehow lower than Trump’s trust rating. All of this is to say that the media needs to be more particular about the words it uses.
And it’s beginning to figure that out.
In the past month or so, American media outlets have begun indulging themselves in the use of the L-word.
The New York Times truly began the trend in January, but it wasn’t until mid-to-late February that others began to catch on.
The Jan. 23 headline was, “Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers.” Trump had once again said that he only lost the vote because 3 million undocumented immigrants voted illegally. That was three days into office, and the Times broke the seal by calling it what it was.
It was truly unprecedented.
When former President Bill Clinton said he did not have relations with his aide – spoiler alert: he did – not one outlet called him a liar. Nobody reported that he lied. The same happened recently in Alabama when Gov. Robert Bentley said he did not have a relationship with his staffer. The problem was that Bentley said that while a recording hit the internet of him speaking to his staffer about grabbing her...well you get the gist. Still not a single reputable source called him out on it. In earnest, many political reporters knew about the physical affair before the governor was divorced and before the tape was leaked. The only reason why it became news was because of possible ethical violations regarding misuse of funds. If it had just been an affair the media would have politely let it slide as nobody’s business. To this day the governor has denied having a relationship and to this day nobody has called him a liar.
But there is no reason to be polite to Trump. The most vitriolic, divisive, hypocritical president in American history has used his power to make empty promises and insult every sect of society. Before he was even elected he had more scandals than Clinton and Richard Nixon combined. Now we have a continuing deluge of lies from small to big. Trump said he won’t have time to play golf as president. He has played 13 times in his first 66 days in office. Trump said his staff had no ties to Russia. We saw how true that was.
In some ways, the media owes Trump thanks. When the leader of your country needs to be fact-checked on everything he says, those who are doing the fact-checking become more powerful. As a result, readership for the bigger American newspapers has gone up since the election.
Since the Times broke the seal on using the L-word, television outlets have started calling Trump a liar in real time and FBI Director James Comey even took time out of an intelligence briefing to say that Trump – who was not in the room – was quoting Comey incorrectly on Twitter. Let me repeat that. Trump was listening to Comey discuss an investigation into the White House’s (Trump’s) connection to Russia, and was misquoting him in real time forcing Comey to interrupt the briefing to call Trump a liar (although he refrained from using that word).
But the media hasn’t. While it was considered rude before, Trump is like the guy at the bar who tries to punch you. Sometimes you have to punch back.
A better example may be Trump’s constant declarations that any news organization calling him a liar is “fake news.” Another lie.
There are many different ways to call a lie what it is.
Bogus. Falsehood. Untruth. Unsubstantiated claim. Trump’s campaign adviser’s favorite: alternative facts.
But “lie” means something more. It’s a strong claim. You can’t say a lie and not be a liar, and Trump has been a liar. When he said the December job numbers boost was bogus but the February jobs increase was great (and because of him), he lied. When he addressed Congress, he told 51 lies in a 61 minute speech. He led the lies about Obama being born in Kenya and when confronted about his wiretapping claim by Time, Trump said, “Well I can’t be doing that badly because I’m president and you’re not.”
The headline of that Trump story in Time: Is Truth Dead? To Trump it is.
Trump has lied and he is a liar, but the media has finally realized the value of calling the sky blue instead of reporting that Trump said it’s orange. •